Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
“Questions of Travel” by Elizabeth Bishop
Driving across Guatemala in my old Salvadoran Volvo, Steve and I planned a school we would open in some remote corner of that land of so many shades of green. We would invite interns from around the world. We would have mango and avocado trees. We would sit in the morning light gazing at those trees, sip our light, Central American coffee, and discuss pedagogy and oppression before our (eternally eager!) students arrived.
At a secluded hacienda in the Andes, escaping propriety and my Ecuadorian host family’s house, we planned a wedding. Small, of course, with a simple service in the little stone chapel and calla lilies by the bucketload (we would abstain, of course, from using the roses wreaking havoc those same hills). Our guests would mill around the blooming courtyard and visit the alpacas in their pastures.
Working at an orphanage, also in Ecuador, I imagined adopting a chubby, big-eyed baby boy named Pedro, scooping him off for the rambling trajectory I thought my life might have for years to come.
An inn overlooking the Pacific, a bistro draped with bougainvillea, a little farm lush with tropical fruit: so often across the miles of our twenties and early thirties, Steve and I have imagined our life if it were to take such a divergent turn, if we put down more than the most tentative, expat roots in one of the countries we have traveled through.
Mostly, it’s fun to imagine. We have dedicated long drives and entire weekend excursions to hashing out particulars of our export business, our eco-lodge. For me, this imagining is one of the real pleasures of travel: facing off with the infinite possibilities of one’s life.
This is all to say that this week I am daydreaming about what I’m calling, somewhat inelegantly, my Casa Grande.
It started while my father and I were strolling with the baby through Morelia’s Centro Historico, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, peeking into old buildings whenever we could. I was telling him how much I love what, in my ignorance of architecture, I call “inside-out houses,” those colonial-style homes that center on an open-air courtyard. He, who as a young college grad bought an old farm and thus became a farmer, was remarking how funny it is that the U.S.’s house aesthetic seems supplanted from New England: suburbia still mimics the house surrounded by pasture, only now we must be our own goats and cows and chew down that grass ourselves.
In the midst of this conversation, we happened to walk past an open gate through which we could see a large stone courtyard surrounded by high, pillared arcades. The place was empty, no pots of plants or patio furniture or other signs of habitation. There was nothing except the structure and two men sitting at a table in the middle.
“It’s for sale,” I remarked a moment before my eye caught on the plastic banner hanging above us on the ornate wooden gate.
Then I saw that the street windows, half of them badly broken but hung with lace curtains all the same, were open behind their iron bars. In Mexico, such windows onto the street are always, and for good reason, closed, so one rarely sees right into a house. And this empty old house was something to see. It was so much so that, even though I’m usually too shy to take advantage of such an opportunity, I stopped and turned around.
“Let’s go look inside,” I suggested to my dad. “They’re obviously having an open house.”
My father held back.
“No, it won’t be bad,” I said. “In fact, they’ll be thrilled to have a couple of foreigners check it out. We’ll make their day.”
I didn’t wait for my father to get on board with this lunacy. I turned around and passed through the open red gates.
“Con permiso,” I called to the men at the table. “May we look at the house?”
They stood up and waved us in. Yes, yes, of course.
And so we stepped into the stone-and-pillar courtyard, and the two men, politely, stepped out and closed the gate after them, leaving my father and I alone with history. Immediately, my imagination slipped back a few centuries. There, in that vast space (though only half what it once was before some owner built a wall down the middle of his property and made it two), I could feel the echo of horse hooves clopping on hand-cut stone. Passing through into the back where the servants’ quarters were, I felt the intimacy, however forced, of two distinct yet co-habitating classes—the front house, stone and arches; an outdoor altar built into stone; interconnected parlor rooms; high windows sending shafts of afternoon light through the dust motes that hadn’t gone away with the furniture—and the back, a sunlit space around a flowering tree; a rock for washing clothing; cool storerooms; a long two-story building with many windows but no staircase; and even two frayed ropes—like nooses—still hanging from the wooden vigas above that must have once held newly butchered meat.
My father and I passed from room to sunlit room. The house was stripped down to bare stone and tile. Aside from some makeshift wiring and plumbing (all of it exposed) and trim paint that looked like it wasn’t more than a decade old, the house showed very little signs of modernity. There was no kitchen, in either the front or back parts. There was no bathroom to speak of (just one seat-less toilet as impromptu as the light bulbs strung from the ceilings).
And yet, for all its spare decrepitude, the house was unmistakably beautiful.
And of course, my imagination fed on its possibilities: A rustic hotel. A restaurant with tables under the arcades and tucked into the corners of former parlors. A school. An art gallery with studios in the bright servants’ quarters.
Or, simply, a great big, quirky home in which one family (and a few tenants) lived with centuries of past families.
It even had a garret room overlooking the courtyard. This is important: I’m a writer. (Although this line of fantasy was undermined when I climbed the ancient wooden stairs to examine the little room and had to come straight down because I was terrified that I would be the one under whom that old wood, after tired centuries, gave way.
We could do it, I thought. Steve and I were comfortable enough with roughing it (who needs plumbing?!), committed (or stubborn) enough to see it through a long renovation, and particular enough to have it done in keeping with the house’s history. It is when I think like this that I best understand colonialism: the impulse is so deeply inculcated, to teach, to fix, to adopt, to redo things my way, to save, to bask in the riches of another culture…
But wouldn’t it be fun? To commit to Mexico? To life in Morelia? To live out the fantasy of this old house?
What if this house, this crumbling rock and rotting wood, were my Casa Grande, my under the Mexican sun?
In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop writes:
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable, at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
This inexplicable old stonework, this impenetrable world that I wander through, that I wonder on, it is a dream. One I do and do not live. I do not run a school in Guatemala; I did not marry in a stone chapel in the Andes; I do not have an Ecuadorian son; and I will never own a three-hundred-year-old “inside-out” house in Morelia, Mexico. But these roads-not-taken (cul-de-sacs really, since each would have curtailed the possible divergences that followed) have reverberated in my own life because some field of so many shades of green or a crumbling old house called out to my imagination.
Travel means that I do dream my dreams and have them too: there was, after all, an old stone chapel were I was married; and there were pedagogy classes that I taught in view of an erupting volcano; and here beside me as I write sleeps my sweet Mexican son. Even the words on this page are a manifestation of a long-held fantasy of mine.
For a day and one afternoon (back with my camera), I daydreamed my life in that empty house; I filled its corners with myself. And then, light and easy, unburdened by cracking stone and broken glass, I moved on, knowing that some part of that old house will travel with me.
But before I left, I learned that I was not the only one with fantasies: the owner of the 20 x 70 meters of that Casa Grande (every one of them badly needing work) told me his asking price with a straight face. Ten million pesos.
“Good luck,” I told him, my face equally bland.
May he live his dreams too.